ABCs of Flash Writing: U is for Unexpected

Posted by on May 8, 2018 in Uncategorized | Comments Off on ABCs of Flash Writing: U is for Unexpected

U is for Unexpected: Packing a Punch in Flash Fiction

I remember the first bit of flash fiction I ever read. I don’t think you can ever forget your first bite of a story swallowed whole. I was a literature student taking an obligatory creative writing class to make me a well-rounded English major. My assignment was to find a piece of compelling flash fiction and present it to the class while focusing on an element of craft. At this point, I had never read flash fiction. I did not even know what it was or could be. My professor lent me her copy of Flash Fiction: 72 Very Short Stories to find a story for the class. That night, sitting on the stained sofa in my mom’s trailer, I sat down prepared to be underwhelmed and done with my assignment in five minutes. My small expectations reflected the size of the one and two page stories.

I finished my assignment over five hours later after reading this anthology cover to cover. There was something intriguing about these authors’ ability to get me to read, feel, and engage with such a small narrative. I sat dumbfounded over how two pages in a paperback book could give me a full narrative arc that elicited emotion and deep thoughts. I dutifully completed my assignment on the use of object and talisman in Tim O’Brien’s “Stockings,” but I was hooked.

I retell this anecdote because many first-time readers come to flash fiction the way I did: with low expectations. Flash fiction, and especially microfiction, creates expectations of superficiality and ease. When a piece of small writing packs a punch, however, readers experience surprise by their surpassed expectations.

Even when larger works delve into the unexpected, the reader remembers this meaningful moment. Think back to the most vivid and memorable scenes in books or poems you’ve read. Did you expect that scene to be there? For some of them, the answer will be a logical and rational moment that you remember for other reason. For other scenes stuck in your memory, you’ll remember the shock of the unexpected. Margaret Atwood’s “You Fit Into Me,” for example, remains an unexpected poem for me. At four lines long, this poem shattered my expectation of what a four line poem could be, but also my lexical understanding of hook and eye. What I interpreted as a hook-and-eye-style button used in sewing, she interprets as a fishing hook and an eyeball. Unexpected. Memorable. Meaning-making.

The unexpected as a tool in the writer’s toolbox can be used and abused. There are good kinds of unexpected and bad kinds of unexpected. Like all good things in this world, the unexpected is easier to define by saying what it is not. It is neither cheap nor clever. Unexpected for the mere sake of shock makes writing shallow. Aristotle, that bastard of all forms, explained in his Poetics that the best stories are ones in which the ending is unexpected, yet logical or inevitable because of the previous actions. This advice has endured for over two thousand years, so maybe we should listen to it.

Here are some ways to include the unexpected in flash fiction.

Jerk Your Reader’s Hand

What is the unexpected-but-inevitable in your story? I always think of Will Farrell’s 2006 comedy Stranger than Fiction. Emma Thompson plays a writer who is trying to find a way to end her novel, which involves killing the main character (who in the film happens to be a real person). When she finally writes the ending, everyone, including a professor of literature played by Dustin Hoffman, lauds this as her most perfect, brilliant, and surprising ending. There are multiple endings possible, but it is the unexpected-but-inevitable ending that poetically concludes her novel that must be written. The writer, here, asks the question what needs to be done?

We are used to hand-holding as writers. We show our reader what and how to pay attention. In this technique, we continue gently to narrate an experience for them, but then jerk them to something more significant at the last moment. This guidance is essential because it creates the expectations necessary for readers to receive the moment of the unexpected that will have them holding their gut or crying or both.

Use Juxtaposition Creatively

Juxtaposition, the art of placing two contrasting things (like characters, objects, voice, etc.) next to each other, helps create the tension between reader’s expectation and what you present to them as the author. Although this technique can sound easy, it is an advanced technique. Juxtaposition requires thoughtful pairings. To place two objects next to each other for the absurdity and sake of it does not move a plot forward, and readers think it is cheap.

Writers can put two distinctively different narrative voices together or combine unique traits to create an unexpected character. Someone who is diagnosed obsessive-compulsive could also be a garbage collector. Juxtaposing obsessive tidiness and cleanliness next to a job filled with mess and dirt creates an unexpected situation that is interesting for writers and readers.

Good juxtaposition also creates great figures of speech. Use this to your advantage to elicit the unexpected in your writing. For example, I could write about a character who does not move much and refer to him as “The taxidermied man resting on the sofa.” Taxidermied humans are not a thing, yet the image of taxidermy next to man makes an unexpected image that will haunt readers.

Be careful with juxtaposition, though. This advanced strategy can be abused and lose your readers if your comparisons are too unexpected. As a writer, you should not explain your comparisons, but let the astute readers pick them up and be rewarded for their close reading.

Refocus Attention

Another useful strategy moves focus away from what readers would expect to be the focus of a scene. In other words, your narrative eye moves to something unexpected. Some writing has become so formulaic in the way that the writer describes a scene that readers expect a certain order of progression.

In a scene where a character dies the narrative will focus on certain sights and sounds. We expect to read about the body and the blood. Perhaps instead of focusing on these elements, the narrator focuses on the wallpaper in the room in a way that creates an unexpected presentation of a murder scene that simultaneously develops setting and character.

Hold Back and Reveal

As much as writers generally love to divulge all of the details, hold something back. Create secrets that do not match the expectations of the character. Leave some element of surprise.

E. Lockhart masterly does this in her novel, We Were Liars. Using the concept of an amnesia plot, the writer withholds some piece of memory from the narrator and the reader. Throughout the entire book the reader and character work to put the pieces of one summer back together.  The one missing bit of information unlocks the entire story in a surprising way. This technique works particularly well in flash fiction where space is limited. Ending a story with a revelation leaves your reader running to reread your flash fiction.

Pro tip: It was all just a dream never works. Don’t do it.

Expectation is Not All Narrative

I have tried to explain the benefit of the unexpected in flash fiction writing and provide four ways to incorporate this concept in your writing. The best surprise in flash fiction is not in what you give your reader, but how you give it to them. The genre itself breaks expectation, yet there is room for the flash fiction writer to break other expectations in the composition of a brief narrative to make a piece of writing truly unexpected and gut punching.

Jason Vanfosson writes fiction and nonfiction. He is a doctoral candidate researching boyhood road trips in young adult literature at Western Michigan University. His work has appeared in Language Arts Journal of Michigan, Microfiction Monday, and elsewhere. You can follow him on social media @jasonvanfosson.